*“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to …” Jesus tells us today a kingdom parable. Now this story may be very familiar to you if you love Godspell, or listen to sermons based on Common Lectionary Year A. And this kingdom parable illustrates that we should forgive our brothers and sisters (as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us) because God has first forgiven us.
Today, I want to tell you another story, and then go back to our kingdom parable.
*This story is from a congregation known to Susan Beaumont who wrote “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going.” (I spent this Thursday at a seminar Susan held for pastors in the State of New Jersey.) It is a story *of a woman named Anna B. Quick (Susan swears that is her real name).
This church we are talking about is more than 200 years ago, but 100 years ago Anna B. Quick “saved” the church. Anna was a member during the days when the congregation was *dying. The building was run down and didn’t really meet the congregation’s needs. There was no money for a minister, and without one, people stopped gathering for worship on Sunday. But Anna always showed up, alone, every Sunday morning, *week after week. She lit the candles and opened the doors just in case someone might join her for prayer. She filed the annual papers that maintained the congregation as a legal entity. The church barely survived, but eventually rebirth happened, and once again the congregation became a thriving community—all thanks to the perseverance of Anna B. Quick. Her portrait hangs in the church lobby, and everyone who goes to the church knows about her.
*What a wonderful story of faithfulness, and trust, and loyalty. What a great story of the power of one individual, one lay person, one woman. But as Susan and the congregation excavated the truth behind this story (one hundred years later, and in a new time of difficulty) they discovered that not all the story had gotten into the telling.
For they discovered that it wasn’t just that Anna had done the same old things (lighting the lights, opening the doors, filing the annual reports); she didn’t just do those same faithful things waiting for the world to right itself. Anna had done more than that. Anna gave sacrificially from her own personal income, and had asked a few others to join her in giving in order to hire a new pastor. Anna led the church in a decision to tear down the old building, and helped raise funds to build a new sanctuary. The church began to thrive after these bold initiatives had been undertaken.
See how this more complete story leads us in different directions? Anna’s story wasn’t really about faithfulness to the same old things, (the way it had been told) but it was about the willingness to act on faith, even to act boldly in faith. Anna’s story is still told in this congregation, but it is told in completeness now, and they are trying to follow her example of stepping confidently into God’s new future.
OK, let’s go back to Jesus’ parable, a kingdom parable. *And let’s start reading again, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” And I have to tell you, I didn’t get past this sentence. You see, all the rest of it: the forgiveness of 10,000 talents when that slave wouldn’t forgive his fellow slave a hundred denarii; the horrific fact that people are threatened (and one slave goes through with the threat) that “if you don’t pay up, you, and maybe your family, will be thrown into prison until you do (which is, of course, never); and the fact that even though this is trying to incite forgiveness, we end the parable with the first slave “handed over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” (which I remind you would be never)—all of this, is contingent on a certain world view.
*Because there is a king, and there are some slaves that talk to the king, and then there are other slaves that are under the slaves that talk to the king. This is a world of privilege and hierarchy and power and cruelty. And this is a kingdom parable? We are supposed to just gloss over the world that this parable inhabits to get to the lesson? I think if Jesus had told this story at a rally, or on social media, today, someone would have responded, “I call BS.” (Translation, that doesn’t cut it.)
*Now for those who might say, but you can’t fight with the Bible—that’s what it says, I stand on thousands of years of interpreting and reinterpreting these stories. Not only that, we believe that God is a living God. God is not captured in stone, and God’s Word is a living Word—that’s why we have these people called preachers, who spent time wrestling with these texts, trying to hear what God has to say to us today.
*And with the cries from the streets, from the pain I hear from my African-American brothers and sisters and also those who feel stepped on and pushed to the side and treated as less than human, I cannot in good conscience move past that first sentence. I cannot preach as if it ok to inhabit a world where there are kings and slaves. I have to say, I want to shout, this is a kingdom parable. We are talking about God’s kingdom. Why are there kings and slaves? Why is there threat and torture, as if that is how God might treat us if we don’t get our act together.
*I do not want to follow a God, or a leader of my country, who uses fear as a motivator. That is not “kingdom” to me.
*So if I blow up the story—if I refuse to enter this not just foreign world, but nasty nightmarish world, that never should have been, never should be, and needs to be repudiated, what am I left with? What is Jesus doing?
*Do I just try to explain it away—Jesus was having a bad day. He’s been trying to explain the kingdom to these people (that’s you and me remember) who just don’t get it. He preached Beatitudes, he has told parables of sowers and seeds and wheat and tares and lifted up little children and talked about a lost sheep and given directions (a how to) about dealing with conflict with one another. And then Peter, on whom he is going to build his church, comes up to him and says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” I can see Jesus’ eyes go *wild, and he grasps his hair and spits out “Not seven times (grumble, grumble) but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” And to make his point he tells, in anger, a slasher story, a snuff tale. And it is labeled a “kingdom” parable.
I can’t imagine that Jesus was cool with kings and slaves—he deliberately ate with those who were outside the pale, and invited tax collectors and women into his inner circle. So maybe we need to do to this 2 thousand year old story, what the congregation did to Anna’s story.
*If you brush off all the trappings of slavery and hierarchy (which is no mean feat!—I’m imagining years of work in an archeological trench with a little brush, trying to get rid of centuries of dust caked into mud tramped down into hard packed earth)—what are the bones of this story?
*It is the golden rule, right? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? (when we are acting our best!) It is the teaching we pray at least every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins AS we forgive our debtors/those who trespass or sin against us.” In the kingdom parable I hear today, all the power gradient, all the class distinction, all the differences that we place on people as we put them in groups—all that goes out the window. It is you and me. Eye to eye. Face to face (with plexiglass in between).
*In this transactional world, where I feel that you owe me, or I owe you—Jesus is trying to break up the little fights we have with one another. “You did this, so now I’m going to do that. Well, now I’m going to up the ante.” I am not saying that we can’t have beefs with one another. And I’m certainly not saying that there aren’t things in our world that shouldn’t be changed. But I think that when you boil down this kingdom parable—it distills down to relationships with other people.
*And Jesus says, ok. I hear you have trouble with one another. But remember, whatever debts/trespasses/sins there are between you pale in comparison to what you owe God. There is no way you could earn forgiveness—you and you and you and you have all fallen short. You have not loved neighbor as self. You have not loved God with everything you have. That may not seem like much to you, but it is everything to God. You owe more than you can come up with. And by your petty way of dealing with things, God ought to lock you up and throw away the key. But that isn’t what God does. For this is a kingdom parable.
*And in a kingdom parable, we are faced with the absurd truth that God has forgiven us. Not once, not twice, but every day, every hour, every minute, every time. Not seven times. Not seventy-seven times. Every time.
*Now look your brother or sister in the eye, and do the same. Because there are powers and principalities; there are those who think themselves kings and “better than” the rest of us; there is so much to do, on so many fronts. We need each other. We need to “make up” and work together. To try to save our planet. To figure out how to feed those who are starving. To cure Covid and cancer. To rebuild our economy with living wage jobs. To become a spiritual home for the many again.
*I don’t think Jesus would have rose-colored glasses that all we have to do is say sorry and grasp hands (virtually) and sing kumbaya (behind our masks). But our kingdom parable asks that we start from a place of humility—not standing on how much has been done to us, not attempting to squirm out of our privilege and its ramifications, but on the grace and love and example of God.
*Parables are meant to make us think—to startle and shake our world view. But they also are a tool to teach us a deep truth. A deep truth about God. A deep truth about ourselves. And a deep truth about how we might travel forward, hand in hand, or at least side by side, always knowing that God is our Way. As the psalmist wrote (Ps. 119:105) and Amy Grant sang “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” So God beneath us, God above us, God before us, God behind us, God beside us, God within us. God and us.
That is the essence of a kingdom parable. What else is there?
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.